Internationalization of higher education in Africa: Emerging trends and realities

James Otieno Jowi ANALYSIS Education & Youth Development

Internationalization has become one of the key drivers of change in higher education the world over. It presents unprecedented opportunities and challenges to higher education systems. For Africa, in addition to these, it even presents risks, especially due to Africa’s peculiar contextual realities. One of the opportunities is that internationalization could present to Africa’s higher education is the strengthening of the knowledge generation and research capacities of African universities. African universities contribute only a paltry 1% of global knowledge due to their weak research and knowledge-generation capacities. One of the formidable responses to this has been through transnational partnerships focused on research. African institutions and governments need to foster partnerships for research. In recent years, there has been growing interest in research partnerships with Africa not only from the traditional partners in the north but also by new entrants such as China, Brazil and India.

Collaboration in research is Africa’s main rationale for internationalization. Africa’s internationalization policies and strategies should, therefore, emphasise these collaborations to improve the research agenda in local universities. Such institutional strengthening would create strong infrastructure to support and sustain knowledge production (Jowi, 2010). Research and innovation is a frontier for international academic exchanges, partnerships and engagements. In addition to low investment in research, Africa has the lowest ratio of researchers per million inhabitants in the world. New developments, including transformations through information communication technologies (ICT), can be utilized to change this situation. There are now huge volumes of information that can be accessed through different ways. The shift to online publications, such as the African e-Journal Project, is providing new opportunities to disseminate African research in an economically sustainable way and with wider reach.

The demand for talent to maintain competitiveness and replenish the national intellectual pool in most African universities is related to the poor research and teaching infrastructures in the universities. The combination of ageing teaching staff and the chronic shortage of academic staff with PhD training have made it difficult for African universities to replace staff losses, or to expand the capacity and quality of teaching and research (Hayward, 2010). The development of the next generation of African academics through increased opportunities for quality doctoral training has therefore been identified as crucial to scaling up Africa’s intellectual capacity (Sehoole, 2011).

Internationalization also fosters academic mobility through which knowledge sharing and specialized training across borders can be attained. While Africa strives to strengthen its universities and develop its centres of excellence in various fields, mobility has been a way of augmenting local capacity needs. Mobility is not a recent phenomenon but is even older than the onset of higher education in Africa, as pioneering African scholars trained abroad. While mobility is increasing globally, African students have become the most mobile globally (Kishun, 2006). With its increasingly youthful population and growing demand for education, Africa will continue to be a key player in mobility. Though mobility has several benefits, one of its negative impacts is brain drain (Tetty, 2009; Ogachi, 2009). Many African students who go on to study in developed countries rarely come back, leading to the erosion of the capacities of African universities for self-renewal. Efforts to stem brain drain include expanding the higher education sector, establishing intra-Africa mobility programmes, specialized centres of excellence and engagements with the African diaspora (Rizvi, 2007; Lumumba, 2009). Brain drain still remains the most serious risk of internationalization to Africa. The lessons leant from Africa’s internationalization efforts could enable Africa to position itself strategically to develop its higher education sector. More efforts need to be focused on the development of supportive frameworks for meaningful international engagements. Through this, Africa could move from being a bystander to a real player in the global knowledge society (EUA, 2010).

At the same time, there are several new initiatives in Africa’s higher education that could be seen as offshoots of internationalization processes. These include the ongoing efforts towards harmonization of different country’s systems of higher education and the development of quality assurance and credit transfer systems that would be useful for enhanced internationalization both within Africa and with other partners. These developments are modelled on Europe’s Bologna process, and are aimed at creating and strengthening Africa’s Higher Education and Research Space (AHERS), with a focus on revitalization of the higher education sector (AUC, 2011). The implementation of the Pan African University (PAU) and the emergence of regional networks is part of these efforts. These developments have taken a more regional dimension as is evident within the East African Community (EAC) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) regions through their regional university associations.

The tremendous expansion of Africa’s higher education sector and the rapid growth in enrolments could have positive benefits for internationalization. Africa’s youthful population is an inestimable resource that, if equipped with requisite knowledge and skills, could transform global knowledge relations. Africa’s current economic growth and developments in governance, among other things, could have an impact on the role of Africa in global affairs, including higher education. The rapid developments in ICT infrastructure is a critical tool for opening new opportunities in almost all frontiers, including internationalisation.

The above possibilities notwithstanding, African universities still face monumental challenges in their internationalization efforts. These include inadequate funding, rapid expansion of the sector, weak governance structures, quality concerns, and weak regulatory mechanisms, which make Africa more vulnerable to global forces (Mohamedbhai, 2003). Apart from the brain drain, other challenges and negative outcomes have included imposition of the wrong policies, adoption of inapplicable educational models, manipulation of research agendas, intellectual property concerns, and feelings of superiority from development partners.Some of these have led to even more imbalances in relations between African universities and those from other regions, thus reducing mutual partnerships and reciprocity required in partnerships. These drawbacks are compounded by Africa’s ad hoc and less strategic approach to internationalization. If unabated, these consequences could lead to more threats, especially in countries with weak regulatory frameworks. Africa may also need to urgently determine and create its competitive advantages, which it can use as frontiers for internationalisation accompanied by policy frameworks. This could be a time for Africa to take its place by adapting to new developments, setting new goals and adopting new approaches to internationalisation – which could open new prospects for strategic cooperation.

Written by

James Otieno Jowi is the founding Executive Director/Secretary General of the African Network for Internationalization of Education (ANIE), an African network focused on the international dimension of higher education in Africa. He also teaches Comparative and International Education at the School of Education, Moi University, Kenya. He has published extensively on the internationalization of higher education in Africa.